One Month Solo on the Appalachian Trail
What defines success? Is it the milestones we reach? Or is it a continuous process: a direction we head towards day by day?
The James River winds through the valleys below, visible for miles from the ridge line. I savor the fleeting moments before I step out to a viewpoint or summit, when trees still obscure the landscape below, and the world, about to open up before me, seems brimming with possibilities. Presently, Phlatlander joins me. We descend along switchbacks for the better part of the mile, drawing ever closer to the river.
"My dad said if I were a boy, he'd worry less. He worries because I'm a girl," I note.
"Sometimes, that makes me mad," Phlatlander responds.
The longest footbridge on the Appalachian Trail spans some 700 feet across the James River. As we reach the bridge, excited shouts fill the air. Young men and women tread water below the bridge, calling and beckoning to a couple of their friends above. I watch as their friends clamber over the bridge railing, hesitate for a brief moment, feet dangling off the edge, then plunge into the water below. Seconds later, they emerge, sputtering and laughing in the warm summery air.
A woman holding a paintbrush in one hand and an open can of white paint stops us after we cross the bridge. "Care for some bananas?" she says, touching up a white blaze on one of the trees.
"Are you sure?" we ask.
"That's why I brought them!"
Later, we stop by an inviting creek to fill up our water. We wade in barefoot, letting the water wash the layers of dirt away. I watch as a butterfly alights on my Camelbak to sip the droplets of water clinging to it. The water running across my toes feels pleasingly cool in the heat.
It's taught me to appreciate the small things."
That night, as I boil a cup of cocoa, the sound of faint laughter reaches my ears. Two northbound hikers bound into the shelter: Rooster, lean and scruffy with a cigarette in hand, and Bumblebee, sporting a green bandana, her face slightly flushed.
"You've got to stay at the Four Pines Hostel!" they tell us.
"Jim's the owner. He cusses at you, like, nonstop. It's awesome!" Rooster says.
"But not at the girls," Bumblebee breaks in.
"I graduated, but it wasn't that long ago. I did the army thing. I went back. It was tough. For me. Going back to school with kids who were in middle school when I was in Iraq."
"I'm between undergrad and grad school. I wanted to hike, so I took a year off."
We chat intermittently throughout the night. Bumblebee and Rooster pull out their maps to plan their routes for the next day. "That's just 22 miles," Bumblebee says, tracing the elevation profile with one finger. "One huge descent, though."
I allow my mind to wander over each moment of the day. These are the experiences I want to remember, I think.